Social Work Graduates

OPTIMISE Rural NC: Opportunities To Integrate Mental health In Southeastern Rural NC

UNCP awarded $1.9 million grant to assist social work, counseling graduate students

UNC Pembroke has been awarded a $1.9 million federal grant to provide financial support and training for students seeking a master’s degree in social work or counseling.

The departments of social work and counseling received the grant from the U.S. Health Services and Resources Administration’s Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training (BHWET) Program to support 120 Master of Social Work and Master of Arts in Education in Counseling students over the next four years.

The program emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration by utilizing team-based care in integrated behavioral health and primary care settings and recruiting a workforce that reflects participation in the institutions’ programs.

“We currently offer scholarships for disadvantaged students through a separate grant, so this is going to expand even further opportunities to help students who may not be able to enroll in our programs because of barriers,” said Dr. Cindy Locklear, assistant professor in the social work department. “The goal is to train students to work in underserved areas in the behavior health field.

“We are hopeful students will not have to rely so much on loans to finish the program. This grant will also allow us to recruit more students who are considering coming back to school and ultimately giving back to underserved communities by providing much-needed services.”

The program titled Opportunities To Integrate Mental Health in SouthEastern Rural NC (OPTIMISE Rural NC) emphasizes interdisciplinary training for a diverse workforce interested in serving high-need and high-demand areas.

Locklear hopes the grant will address the shortage of behavior and mental health professionals in the service region. Students will receive training in trauma-informed care, violence prevention and telehealth delivery.

Additionally, the BHWET program will allow the university to expand its relationship with its community-based partners  

“Part of the goal is to provide training not only to students but to practitioners in our region who are serving our students. They need that training to maintain their professional licenses,” said Dr. Summer Woodside, MSW program director.

Federal grant programs such as this help build the area’s workforce in mental health and substance abuse counseling.

“Master-level social work and counseling graduates can become behavioral health therapists, and a portion of this grant will allow us to provide support to help them prepare for their clinical state licensure exams. Ideally, we want to encourage students who complete our programs to remain in the area and serve the local community. This helps fill the gap in our behavioral health workforce in Robeson and surrounding counties,” Woodside added.

Woodside and Locklear will serve as program director and co-program director. They wrote the grant proposal with contributions from counseling faculty Drs. Ki Chae and Shenika Jones and Megan Smith, an MSW graduate assistant.


Recording of Spring 2024 Information Session - Passcode is 4UC^@KSh

Spring 2024 Information Session Slide Desk 


The application window to participate in the 2024-2025 OPTIMISE program is currently closed!


This program is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of an award totaling $1,913,297 with 0% financed with non-governmental sources. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by HRSA, HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit